Another less heralded face of the market – the world of the earnest collectors, academics and enthusiastic dealers – is that observed with increasing regularity in provincial salerooms.
In truth, away from a relatively small number of trophy objects and the sculptural pieces that appeal to the smart end of the interior-decorating trade, a large swathe of the antiquities market – conversation pieces such as lamps first lit two millennia ago or the timeless elegance of a Spartan alabastron – is very accessible.
“At this end of the market there is a real mix of buyers,” said Alice King, specialist at Chiswick Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) after the sale on September 25.
“Most private buyers have their own speciality and know what they’re looking for but there are beautiful pieces across the range.
“They often have a contemporary look and it’s gratifying to see younger buyers coming in as well as academics.”
Feel the force
Consider, for example, the Darth Vader lookalike that was the top-seller at Chiswick.
This Mezcala stone figure created in south-west Mexico during the pre- Classic era was made c.1400-500BC – three millennia or more before the arrival of the blockbuster movie.
The 7in (18cm) high figure pitched at £4000-6000 sold to a UK dealer at £9000.
Good Egyptian material is now very expensive, but minor small-scale pieces remain buyable. Offered at Chiswick was the 6in (15cm) limestone torso and upper legs of a 3rd century BC figure, identifiable as a king by his royal shendyt (kilt) and the tripartite modelling used for royal figures. It went to a Continental bidder at a quadruple-estimate £4200.
A 12th Dynasty, c.1700BC, basalt figure of a kneeling priest, 4¾in (12cm) high, tripled the estimate at £1800, while a 6in (15cm) tall glazed composition shabti funerary figure, from the New Kingdom-Late Period, went on lower hopes at £300.
Among the Greek pieces, a 7in (17.5cm) high 3rd century BC terracotta seated female figure from the Tanagra region took a mid-estimate £750 with an Etruscan 3½in (9cm) tall bronze figure of a nude warrior, possibly Hercules and once holding a club, sold at £190. Both went to the UK trade.
Raising considerable interest recently have been the vessels produced in Apulia, southern Italy, in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.
A typical 3in (8cm) tall trefoil oinochoe (wine vessel) went a shade over estimate to a UK collector at £140, but more was expected and achieved by the red figure fish plate illustrated above.
Dated 340-320BC, the 10in (25cm) diameter plate decorated with bream and a torpedo fish sold at a mid-estimate £3800 to a Continental bidder.
Bottles can be bargains
Apulian material also featured at Halls (19.5% buyer’s premium) in Shrewsbury on September 26, where two 4th century BC black-glazed oinoche (wine vessels) topped an antiquities offering.
Typical thin necked vessels with flared spout, one decorated with repeating ovules sold at £750. The other, decorated with an olive wreath and two youths took £1200.
Both went under estimate to the same Midlands collector.
Asian art specialist Alexander Clement includes antiquities in fine art sales when, as with the 60 lots in September, they are consigned by clients along with other material.
Given slightly bullish estimates by a consultant, they made for tough going on the rostrum but Clement believes the area is worth pursuing.
“I remember thinking 20 years ago how cheap Roman glass was: 2000-year-old scent bottles selling at around £150 for instance. The market hasn’t changed all that much today when an Edwardian novelty scent bottle can cost £1000 and more.”
Antiquities before tribal
At Woolley & Wallis (25% buyer’s premium) in Salisbury, Will Hobbs opens his tribal arts sales with antiquities.
The 80 lots in the September 19 auction generally sold in three figures, but there were higher sellers including a 4ft (1.22m) wide Roman carved marble sarcophagus from the 2nd-3rd century AD which took a mid-estimate £7500.
Surprises emerged. The poor condition of a c.4th century BC pottery hydra (water vessel) was such that other Greek pieces, a lekythos, a shallow circular footed dish and a panelled amphora body were included in the lot estimated at £200-300.
“The hydra had been pretty well smashed and poorly repaired,” said Hobbs, “but it could be repaired again by an expert and the decoration was so superb that had it been in perfect condition it would have been a £10,000-20,000 item.”
After the lot sold at £4800, Hobbs believed that the buyer may have thought he could put a name to the decorator.
Despite the issues surrounding exportation – “most lots come in with a family history but little documentation”, said Hobbs – overseas buyers were evident at Salisbury.
A Canadian bidder went to a top-estimate £6000 to secure a c.1295- 1069BC Egyptian limestone fragment measuring 17 x 22½in (43cm x 57cm), depicting the vulture goddess Nekhbet.
Meanwhile, a Spanish buyer took a c.3200BC, 7½in (19cm) tall Syrian stone idol made in Tell Brak at £480.
Of a form appealing to modern buyers of ceramics – “timeless”, said Hobbs – was a Laconian black glazed pottery alabastron with a simple decoration of two red bands.
Dating from the late 6th century BC and standing 5½in (13.5cm) high, it was in remarkably good condition and went to the UK trade at a triple-estimate £600.